Civic Discussion, Ideological Diversity and the Humanities Classroom

The issue of political polarisation and bias in classrooms is a time-honoured one, having been an issue as old as the profession itself. Students, parents and the community, at times understandably, have been weary of teachers being biased and partial in the way they approach contentious issues in the classroom. These concerns are particularly relevant in Humanities classrooms, which deals extensively with societal issues and debates. Recent political events, including elections and terrorist attacks and the resulting divisive discussions and rhetoric, have only further enhanced these issues and concerns. As Humanities teachers, it is crucial that we naviagate these issues with students in an even-handed, calm and thoughtful manner.

Such concerns around ideological diversity and debate in classrooms have been heightened for a number of reasons. One of these are widely-reported  protests on college and university campuses across Western countries, Australia included, in which speakers are de-platformed, shouted down or otherwise prevented from speaking freely. Ongoing research has shown that there is a lack of ideological diversity on campuses. A report from Heterodox Academy, an organisation led by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt which seeks to increase ideological diversity in academia, shows just how pervasive the problem is. Data shows from the report shows that at some colleges, there is a ratio of more than 10 faculty members identifying as liberal or left-of-centre for every conservative or right-of-centre member of faculty. Although less often mentioned, there is also a problem with ideological diversity in primary and secondary classrooms.

When teaching Humanities subjects at a Secondary level, it is important to remain impartial and not push an agenda onto students. As teachers, we are rightly mindful of diversity in terms of gender, race and so on. At times, however, the profession fails to promote ideological diversity. Too often, classrooms can resemble echo chambers, where only a narrow set of views and opinions are discussed and explored. There are a few reasons why this is the case. One of the main reasons for this, unsurprisingly, is that school classrooms generally reflect the ideological viewpoints of the community in which they are situated (Hess, 2009, p.6). By extension, teachers may, without realising, internalise the dominant viewpoints of the school community in which they are a part of.

In order to cultivate ideological diversity in the classroom, at a minimum, clear, effective and strong principles of classroom and behaviour management must be implemented. Students speaking and voicing an opinion must be able to talk uninterrupted, even when raising points which may go against the consensus thinking of the classroom or may be controversial in some way. It is also essential to model to students how to respond, in terms of what constitutes and appropriate and inappropriate response to challenging ideas. It must be made abundantly clear, for example, that personal insults or denigration are completely unacceptable and that clear consequences will occur for students who violate this basic classroom expectation.

In order to do this effectively, a significant level of introspection and critical reflection on our teaching practice, particularly our manner of communication is necessary. At times, this will require also reflecting on our own belief systems, political beliefs and so on. Research has found that teachers who are willing to explore confrontational and controversial issues with students implicitly encourage students to do likewise (Hess, p.6). In order to teach students the skill of civil discussion on complex and contentious issues and encourage diverse viewpoints on them we as teachers must model these behaviours ourselves. This means conducting ourselves in a professional manner, not only in the classroom but in other avenues where such topics may come up, such as social media. In the same way we must avoid our classrooms becoming merely ideological echo chambers, we must avoid falling into similar habits when discussing contentious issues online or in person outside the classroom.

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Facebook Trending Topics and Political Bias

A recent article on Gizmodo alleges that Facebook selectively chooses topics to appear in its ‘trending news’ section. This is despite Facebook claiming to utilise an algorithm which automatically selects the most posted-about news topics to appear in this section. In the article, a former Facebook employee explains how the ‘trending news’ section is subjectively selected by workers, sometimes including suppressing certain news items from the section based on the political persuasion of the particular news item. The article goes on to explain some of the specific details of the trending news curation by workers. Among these details includes claims that news on politically conservative topics and people were prevented from appearing in the trending section, even if they were among the most posted about topics on Facebook at a given time. News about Facebook was also prevented from appearing in this section. Additionally, non-trending topics were alleged to have been placed in this section, even if they were not near the most posted-about news topics.

In order to dispel concerns from conservative politicians and media figures, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week met with key conservatives in order to explain the situation. In the wake of the meeting, reaction among conservatives who attended the meeting was mixed. Some conservatives, such as CNN commentator S.E. Cupp and The Blaze’s Glenn Beck believed the meeting to be a positive and productive one. According to them, common ground was met and Zuckerberg took their concerns seriously. Other conservatives were more sceptical about Facebook and Zuckerberg’s promises to ensure conservative news was not being suppressed. Among those at the event with this view include the editor of conservative website, the Daily Caller and Fox News analyst Tucker Carlson. He admonished not only Zuckerberg but also Glenn Beck, accusing him of ‘sucking up’ to the Facebook CEO.

The allegations, if true are significant and a cause for concern. A website with the reach and influence of Facebook plays an important part in the news cycle and in societal discourse. One of the cornerstones of Facebook’s success as a website is as an open platform for publishing and for sharing news and information. This is also how Facebook has consistently presented itself since launching. If Facebook is now curating news on its website in a subjective manner, it is within its rights to do so as a private company. However, Facebook must clearly and openly state this to users in the interests of openness and fairness. At present, it appears that Facebook has people subjectively choosing which news appears on its trending section of the website, while at the same time claiming it is objectively chosen via an algorithm. In this sense, Facebook is operating more like a traditional news outlet rather than a news aggregator.

In order to remedy this problem, social media outlet Twitter recently created the Moments page, a human-driven aggregate of news items based on human interest stories separate to the objective, algorithm-based Trending topics on a user’s Twitter feed. As a result of this current situation, it may well be the case that Facebook soon looks to emulate Twitter’s Moments in one form or another. Regardless, it is important that Facebook remains an unbiased news content aggregator, and even more important that it does not attempt to suppress news items based on its political slant.